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From chores to triage: RN pitches in after West, Texas, explosion

Monday July 1, 2013
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Shirley Vrba, RN
Shirley Vrba, RN, grew up in the shadow of the West Fertilizer Co. and never gave its safety a thought, yet she knew when a loud boom shattered the quiet April 17 in West, Texas, that “something bad had happened.” Little did she expect she would spend the next five hours helping victims of an explosion that leveled the plant, injured hundreds and killed 14.

"It’s something you never want to go through again," Vrba said.

A nurse at Providence Health Center in Waco for 22 years, Vrba was putting her groceries away when the "horrible noise" concerned her. She tried calling her elderly mother, Mona Zahirniak, to check on her, but the line went dead. She jumped in the car to drive the short distance to her mom’s house and noticed the air filled with black smoke. Neighbors told Vrba it was poisonous gas. Law enforcement officers had cordoned off the area near the home and were instructing people to get out of town.

"People were running from their homes, and one house on the next block was on fire," Vrba said.

Vrba safely tended to her mom, who had been injured by a picture frame knocked off a shelf by the blast, and hustled the elderly woman and her dog into the car for a ride to her house, across from the West Community Center. Upon arriving, she saw emergency officials bringing victims to the community center.

"I ran over there to see what I could do to help," said Vrba, adding later that jumping in where needed is something nurses just do.

At the community center, Vrba learned about what had happened and the need to move victims who had been triaged at a football field not far from the plant to a safer location to wait for transportation to medical facilities. She and other nurses took care of lacerations and bleeding wounds and monitored victims’ vital signs. Plenty of supplies were available from the disaster truck dispatched to the scene through the state emergency management program.

"There was everything you needed," Vrba said. "So many people came to help."

Many of the injured had lived at West Rest Haven Nursing Home and now required placement in another facility. Confused, scared and bandaged, they waited at the community center for transfer to Waco, Clifton and other Texas communities. Nurses kept track of who went where.

"Everybody was working together," she said. "I felt good about being able to help, but we didn’t know who had been killed."

Vrba knew all of the men who lost their lives. She said the death and injury toll could have been worse if so many people had not been participating in church activities on the other side of town.

She since has visited some of the displaced nursing home residents and found they have adjusted fairly well. Many residents continue living with friends and family. Her mother still is staying with Vrba. Some people have moved to Waco.

"There will be a lot of rebuilding for a long time in the city of West," Vrba said. "It’s amazing how everyone came together to see how they could help someone else."


Debra Anscombe Wood, RN, is a freelance writer. Post a comment below or email editorSouth@nurse.com.